Sports

Zhao highlights toughness of Stanford freshmen class

Just how dominant has freshman Carol Zhao been at the No. 3 spot this year?

Of Zhao's 28 victories, all but three have been decided in straight sets. At times, it seems Zhao is rarely even pushed to the limit, with only four of her sets this season decided by a tiebreaker.

Turns out she can win those, too.

Two days after watching fellow rookie Caroline Doyle deliver a pressure-packed win, Zhao provided the clinching point with a hard-fought 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4) victory as 11th-seeded Stanford defeated No. 3 Virginia, 4-2, on Saturday afternoon in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Stanford (20-2), which has won nine consecutive NCAA tournament matches when seeded lower than its opponent, will next face No. 7 North Carolina on Monday at 10 a.m. PT with the winner earning a spot in the national championship.

Saturday's victory was just another in a growing list of postseason "upsets" for Stanford.

The victim this time around was Virginia (24-6), seeded No. 3 in the postseason draw but ranked No. 4 in the national poll. The upstart Cavaliers were enjoying their best season in school history, racking up a program-high 24 victories and claiming their first-ever ACC regular-season title and ACC Tournament crown.

However, Stanford possessed a sizeable advantage in experience. The Cardinal has won 17 of the 32 possible NCAA championships. Meanwhile, Virginia was appearing in the NCAA quarterfinal for the first time in school history.

"It means a lot to our team, we had belief all year and it's nice to finally arrive in the semifinals," said Cardinal coach Lele Forood, who recorded her 350th career victory. "Virginia was really, really tough. They did a great job of hanging tough the entire match. Nobody lost their match, it was about people who won their matches. I think that's a real statement for them."

Aiming to repeat as NCAA champions for the first time since an undefeated three-year run from 2004-06, Stanford built an early lead and received late victories from Doyle and Zhao after Virginia had fought back to even the match at 2-2.

Capturing the doubles point for the 19th time in 22 matches, Stanford gained a 1-0 lead thanks to strong performances at the top of the lineup. Even on two courts, the Cardinal's No. 2 duo of Taylor Davidson and Ellen Tsay posted an 8-5 triumph over the nation's seventh-ranked duo of Julia Elbaba and Rachel Pierson.

Carrying over her momentum from Thursday's dramatic three-setter, Davidson contributed a 6-4, 6-1 victory to kick off singles play and extend Stanford's lead to 2-0.

Virginia, which spent all but one month ranked among the top-10, battled back to even the contest at 2-2. Danielle Collins charged ahead with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Krista Hardebeck on court two while Maci Epstein edged Tsay 7-6 (5), 6-3 on court five.

Doyle had won her first set 6-2 at the No. 6 position before Caryssa Peretz countered with a 6-3 victory in the second frame. The deciding set was all Doyle, who convincingly ripped off six games in a row to push Stanford's lead to 3-2.

The clincher would end up coming from Zhao, but it wasn't easy. In the first set, Zhao led 4-2 before Nauta won the next three games.

Zhao eventually forced a tiebreaker, winning seven of the eight points. In the second set, Zhao rallied from a 6-5 deficit to force a second tiebreaker, jumping out to an early lead and holding on for the win.

"Obviously it was a really tight match," said Zhao. "I saw that it was probably going to come down to me, because Kristie was still in the middle of the second set. I just focused really hard on each point in the tiebreak and tried to get the win for my team."

The Cardinal improved to 133-16 in the NCAA tournament by achieving its fifth straight 20-win season and 33rd in program history.

— Stanford Athletics

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